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Backpack Buddies coming to two Newton elementary schools

Food Bank of Iowa program targets ‘chronically hungry’ kids

One in five Iowa children do not get enough food to eat, even with school-based free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs.

That’s where the Food Bank of Iowa attempts to fill in the gaps by providing its “Backpack Buddies” program. Its goal is to provide a sack of kid-friendly foods to qualified elementary school children on weekends when they do not have access to federal meal programs.

“Backpack Buddies actually started in Arizona several years ago,” Food Bank of Iowa director Carey L. Miller said. “A school nurse noticed children coming to school hungry, not ready to learn. We began our program in 2006.”

Initially, based out of the food bank’s Des Moines office, the Backpack Buddies program served 24 students. Today, it serves nearly 2,300 students from 52 sites in 12 counties.

In January, the program will add another 40 students from the Newton Community School District. As a pilot for the program, students at the Aurora Heights and Thomas Jefferson elementary schools — identified by teachers, principals or counselors as “chronically hungry” — will participate in the program.

“We know this program doesn’t meet 100 percent of the need at each site,” Miller said. “Sometimes, participation is based on a particular site’s capacity to provide assistance. We’re addressing the chronically hungry, so we want to make sure the children we enroll in the program are having their needs consistently met.”

At the end of each school week, children in the program will receive a sack of food they can prepare themselves, if necessary. The contents of the sacks will vary each week, but contain a variety of items such as microwavable meals or soup, 100-percent juice, single-serve cereal, fruit cups, peanut butter and shelf-stable (doesn’t require refrigeration) 2-percent milk. The children also receive two healthy snacks.

“The food we give them is pretty standard,” Miller said. “We want to make sure it’s something small hands can get open. And, we look at the nutritional guidelines to make sure they’re getting the nutrition they need.”

In the Newton pilot program, teachers will slip the food sack into the children’s backpacks at the end of the school week. The goal is to ensure a level of confidentiality while providing assistance to the children.

There is no cost to the child, or his or her family, to participate in the program.

“We know healthy food options are important to all children every day of the week,” Aurora Heights principal Carol Farver said. “We are glad this program can help meet current nutritional weekend needs for children in families who may find themselves in special circumstances.  Backpack Buddies is a program that is trying to address a problem that more families face in our current economy.”

Miller said it costs approximately $3.75 per student per week to keep the program operating. It is funded entirely by grants and donations, which come from individuals, families, small businesses, large corporations, churches and other non-profits.

Funding for a specific school program can be identified with each donation.

The Food Bank of Iowa partners with local school districts’ programs, which are supported by volunteers who pick up and deliver food from the Food Bank of Iowa in Des Moines, and then sort and re-pack the food into individual sacks distribution. So far, a number of Newton service clubs, church groups, business clubs and organizations have been contacted to organize Backpack Buddies volunteer mornings for their groups to assist with sorting and re-packing weekend food to go into the backpacks. 

“We’re very excited that Backpack Buddies is going to be starting in the Newton schools,” Thomas Jefferson principal Lisa Sharp said. “We’re grateful for the volunteer support we’ve received so far in helping to get the program organized.”

Bob Eschliman can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 423 or via email at

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